Five faculty projects honored for teaching innovations


Five faculty projects that involve innovative approaches to improving student learning will be honored next month with Provost’s Teaching Innovation Prizes.

The winning projects were chosen from 36 nominations from students, faculty and staff. They fell within one of three focus areas: anti-racist and equity-focused teaching, re-activating student engagement following pandemic learning, and structures that support student well-being.

The honorees will talk about their projects during a virtual discussion from 11 a.m.-noon May 1 as part of U-M’s annual Enriching Scholarship conference. James Hilton, vice provost for Academic Innovation, will moderate the session.

The Provost’s Teaching Innovation Prize is sponsored by the Office of the Provost, the Center for Research on Learning and Teaching and the University Library. The winners receive $5,000.

These summaries of the 2023 TIP honorees were prepared by CRLT.

The Abrahamic Sensorium

Rebecca Scharbach Wollenberg, assistant professor of Judaic Studies, LSA; Yasmin Moll, assistant professor of anthropology, LSA

In a course or a workshop that is part of the Abrahamic Sensorium, students engage with sounds, scents, tastes, sights and tactile manifestations of Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions.

Centering the senses in the classroom “allows students to bypass rehearsed narratives both about their own religious traditions and those of other traditions, thus enabling new spaces of engagement around fraught topics,” Michael Lempert, professor of anthropology in LSA, wrote in nominating the project.

Sensory pedagogy offers students direct and shared experiences that are visceral and evocative. They might taste and smell a meal re-created from archives by an “anthro chef,” or experiment with writing instruments used to produce scriptural texts in different communities and eras.

During the pandemic, vials were mailed to students’ homes so they could synchronously experience and describe the same scents over Zoom, despite physical separation.

When students learn through their bodies and senses, and not only through intellectual engagement with texts, they reflect more deeply on course topics and connect more significantly with other students in the classroom.

They notice the uniqueness of each religious tradition and points of comparison and connection. This supports a more robust classroom climate of diversity, equity and inclusion, even when exploring topics that are personally and socially sensitive.

In the Anthropology of Islam course, U-M student Garret Ashlock took part in a field trip to Hamtramck to learn how to visualize public Muslim-American life through photography. “I went from perceiving the community’s culture as being somewhat alien to mine to understanding the remarkable similarities and sympathies between them,” Ashlock wrote.

Architecture and Artificial Intelligence

Matias del Campo, associate professor of architecture, A. Alfred Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning

Matias del Campo
Matias del Campo

Del Campo’s research and teaching focus on the various ways that artificial intelligence will impact the future of architectural design.

Introducing artificial intelligence into architecture pedagogy is shifting the paradigm for student learning, and Taubman College is on the cutting edge. Top-down expert systems driven by faculty are giving way to more collaborative learning systems, as cloud-computing solutions give students access to powerful graphics processing without the need for expensive hardware.

Students in del Campo’s course Architecture and Artificial Intelligence and his thesis studio, Data, Dreams, and Diffusions, explicitly address technological and ethical implications of applying AI to architecture design.

To explore what AI can do for them, del Campo’s students learn how to program neural networks and methods for training them to perform specific tasks. Graduate students from Michigan Robotics and Computer Science collaborate to resolve any coding problems, and they explain the inner workings of machine learning and neural networks in order to demystify AI.

The impact on students is not limited to immediate design applications. Students also begin to perceive the manifold ways that AI is already part of their everyday life and environment.

They see how racial and cultural biases can make their way into the datasets used to train AI, and how attending to aspects of racial diversity, equity and inclusion will be needed to build datasets for a more just architecture.

Students are thus prepared professionally “to meet a future where this technology is increasingly used” and “to think critically about AI’s future ubiquity,” wrote del Campo’s colleague McLain Clutter, associate professor of architecture, and associate professor in LSA’s Digital Studies Institute.

Humanize the Numbers: Using Photographic Collaborations to Expose the Humanity of Incarcerated Individuals

Isaac Wingfield, lecturer IV, Residential College

Isaac Wingfield
Isaac Wingfield

Humanize the Numbers is a community-engaged course in the Prison Creative Arts Project curriculum.

Over the course of a semester, U-M students drive to a Michigan state prison every week to teach a group of incarcerated men the fundamentals of photography. They collaborate with this group on a creative photography project, which often serves to educate the public about the issues of the carceral state. 

Wingfield centers collaboration and partnership between the students and the incarcerated men in the course design. Incarcerated participants take an active role in the structure and design of the project.

Each participant brings their own expertise and knowledge into the room — others learn from them, while they learn from others. Each participant fills in gaps in their knowledge, learning from and alongside their collaborators.

The impact on U-M students comes from several angles: They learn about the complexity and expansiveness of the criminal legal system and its deep impact on individuals and society. The experience often challenges students’ assumptions and preconceived ideas about mass incarceration and incarcerated people.

They also develop skills around collaborative engagement, meeting partners as peers working toward a common goal, rather than authorities in the field conveying their scholarship.

U-M alumna Sarah Posner described it as “one of the most unusual and significant creative experiences I’ve had in my life.”

Stone Stewart, another U-M alum, discussed the lasting impact the course had on “my values as a person and practitioner. Through Isaac’s teaching and the Humanize the Numbers course, I’ve had the fortune of witnessing creativity materialize in places where society has chosen to invest only the bare minimum or not at all.”

Lettersmith: A Writing Support Tool That Provides Structured Guidance and Encourages Metacognition

Julie Hui, assistant professor, School of Information

Julie Hui
Julie Hui

Lettersmith is an innovative educational technology platform that significantly improves student writing quality and confidence, while strategically deploying instructors’ expertise and time.

Instead of spending time repeatedly pointing out the same basic mistakes, instructors can customize templates that break writing processes into manageable chunks with clearly articulated expectations for structure, content and tone.

Existing writing support tools provide feedback after a draft has been produced. Lettersmith uniquely provides support much earlier in the process. The platform enables instructors to curate checklists of required components and provide models of good writing in a specific professional or academic genre.

Instructors can thus effectively support large numbers of learners from the very initial stages of drafting. As students practice complex rhetorical moves, real-time feedback and reflection opportunities promote metacognition as they assess their own learning.

Umang Bhojani, a senior studying user experience in the School of Information, analyzed transcripts of interviews with students who used Lettersmith in technical classes.

“Students felt able to genuinely internalize the improvements that were made in their writing, (learning) not only how to write certain components of a professional piece, but why these components were important and how to make them cohesive in nature,” Bhojani wrote.

Such transparency improves instructional equity and is particularly useful for those who may not have a strong professional network for writing support, such as first-generation students and non-native English speakers. 

Since its inception, more than 5,000 people have used Lettersmith to write cover letters, technical reports, client-based email, memos and reading responses.

Lettersmith is being developed in partnership with the Center for Academic Innovation.

(Re)Politicizing Engineering Knowledge Through Racism-Conscious Engineering Instruction

James Holly Jr., assistant professor of mechanical engineering, College of Engineering

James Holly Jr.
James Holly Jr.

Holly innovated an approach to teaching mechanical engineering that fosters students’ acknowledgement, understanding and rejection of the ways engineering knowledge and practice have been rooted in White supremacist epistemologies.

Students explore sociopolitical and historical contexts of mechanical engineering, engage in critical inquiry, and conceptualize how mechanical engineering can be racially just.

The approach utilizes writing reflections, socially annotated readings and a multimodal final project in which students analyze an engineering education or practice challenge, with respect to racial justice and propose a feasible solution. 

Holly developed a set of case studies, some that explore innovations by Black people, such as analyzing the fluid dynamics of Elijah McCoy’s automated oil lubrication system. Others discuss the consequences of engineering projects on Black communities, such as the solid mechanics of levees that failed during Hurricane Katrina.

These case studies are part of a collegewide grant to create a repository of case studies, which Holly hopes will support other faculty in incorporating the innovation into their teaching. 

Holly’s students describe the course as an insightful and impactful departure from the usual curricular focus on technical skills. In the words of Mizan Thomas, a student enrolled in the course, these “lessons are integral to producing socially conscious, people-first engineers.”


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